Thursday, May 4, 2023
A recent story in Government Executive summarizes a newly-released guidance memo to federal agencies from the Office of Management and Budget. But the guidance actually has an interesting backstory that stretches back 20 years.

There has long been a desire to be able to identify and encourage the development of agencies that are “high performing,” that demonstrate “performance excellence,” or “quality management,” and more. The OMB guidance memo describes this as Measuring, Monitoring, and Improving Organizational Health and Organizational Performance in the context of the evolving post-pandemic workplace.

This draws on many of these past efforts as OMB developed a nuanced approach that provides agencies a great deal of flexibility and opportunities to innovate approaches that work for them.


Twenty years ago – in 2003 – the U.S. Government Accountability Office hosted a forum to explore what it means for a federal agency to be “high performing” – and how would we know what that would look like. It subsequently issued a summary report of highlights from that forum. That report identified key characteristics and capabilities of high-performance organizations and discussed “the metrics, means, and mechanisms that a federal agency should use” to achieve important results and outcomes. Chief among these were: creating a focus on clients and customers, and the strategic management of agency talent.

Fast forward to 2018, the National Academy of Public Administration examined ways to strengthen the organizational health and performance of federal agencies in order to better deliver performance and results. Its report – citied in the recent OMB directive – proposed expanding the existing federal performance management framework, tailored to the needs of different missions and units. It proposed a focus on unit-level health and performance, using a learning-based approach, and leveraging data analytics to manage.

The NAPA report was followed by several other related studies. A 2020 IBM Center for The Business of Government study by University of Illinois-Chicago researchers, James Thompson and Alejandra Medina, focused on how to develop measures of management quality. Like GAO, they too convened a forum and based their results, in part, on the insights and experience of those attendees. They outlined six building blocks, such as balancing the design of measures using both “bottom up” and “top down” approaches, as well as engaging the broader federal management community such as chief financial officers and chief human capital officers.

The NAPA and IBM Center reports subsequently generated interest among a self-organized group of current and former federal executives who offered advice to OMB as part of the 2021 presidential transition. That ad hoc group, co-sponsored by the IBM Center and the Senior Executives Association, recommended development of communities of practice to convene managers across agencies to share best practices with each other.

Interestingly, the OMB directive drew upon insights from all three of these prior studies.

The Challenge

Why would it take so long to develop guidance on what seems like a common sense, straight forward initiative – to understand whether federal agencies are capable of delivering on their mission?

The private sector and governments in other countries regularly assess how well they manage. For example, the World Management Survey and the Baldrige Performance Excellence program both benchmark public and private organizations, and the European Union and Canada both have assessment frameworks to help improve their government operations.

The conundrum is – do you create a standard (such as ISO-9000 Quality Standards, Baldrige Quality Award, or the European Common Assessment Framework)? Or do you create a process (such as Lean Six Sigma, Agile, or Total Quality Management)? And if you choose a process, do you mandate the use of a single, common process or let each agency decide which approach works best within their existing organizational culture?

OMB opted for the latter, giving agencies wide latitude.  It stresses the importance of learning from each, via communities of practice, rather than trying to create a one-size-fits-all approach.

OMB’s guidance encourages agencies to not start from scratch. They will build on existing administrative routines (such annual strategic reviews, annual employee surveys, etc.). OMB also encourages key players to talk to each other about their status and share ways to improve (e.g., bridging the financial management, IT, contracting, grants, and other such mission support communities). Basically, OMB’s guidance encourages integration of many existing loose threads.

As the OMB initiative moves forward, it will be interesting to see how agencies and OMB approach its implementation, and leverage the long history that led up to its launch!